By Mark Palmer
No fooling: Sixty-one years ago — April 1, 1957 — Oklahoma Sooner mat champ Dan Hodge, a Distinguished Member inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in the Charter Class of 1976, earned a place on the cover of Sports Illustrated … and remains the only amateur wrestler to appear on the cover of the iconic sports magazine in its nearly 66-year history.
Because it’s a once-in-a-most-of-our-lifetimes event for a wrestler to make the SI cover, InterMat thought it would be appropriate to honor this incredible milestone … by taking a look back at the cover story and a couple other times Hodge appeared within the pages of Sports Illustrated.
“Are you sure Hodge is the one and only wrestler on the SI cover?”
Before we get too far along, let’s share some basic ground rules for this article.
Some of you might be able to name an MMA star, NFL player or pro wrestler who once wrestled in high school or college, and was featured on a Sports Illustrated cover. Unless the guy you’re thinking of appeared as an amateur wrestler and not years later as a professional athlete or sports entertainment personality, that doesn’t count for our purposes. So don’t expect InterMat to do a story about any of those cover boys.
Then there are you doubting Thomases, who are immediately thinking of names of high-achieving amateur wrestlers and Distinguished Members of the Hall of Fame who surely must have been the subject of SI cover stories: Doug Blubaugh. Dan Gable. John Smith. Pat Smith, Cael Sanderson. Rulon Gardner. The answer is no, nope, sorry. None of these mat superstars has, to our knowledge, graced the SI cover.
(If you have an actual Sports Illustrated magazine cover that features an amateur wrestler as an amateur wrestler, we’d like to see it. Note: regional special editions don’t count.)
And, for the smart aleck who says, “Woah, what about the other wrestler on the SI cover with Dan?” … well, all I can say is, “Point taken.” To our knowledge, the other wrestler is Rex Edgar, teammate of Hodge’s at University of Oklahoma who placed third at 167 pounds at the 1957 NCAAs and who received the Lifetime Service to Wrestling award from the Oklahoma Chapter of the Hall of Fame in 2015.
A word about Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated is arguably the leading newsweekly magazine devoted to covering sports. It was launched in August 1954 … just less than three years before Dan Hodge appeared on the cover. Published by media giant Time, Inc., Sports Illustrated today has a paid circulation of approximately 3,000,000 … with a total readership of nearly 18,000,000. Among the ongoing annual features that have become a hallmark of SI: the Sportsman/Sportsperson of the Year … and the annual Swimsuit Edition which is by far the magazine’s biggest newsstand seller.
From its beginning in the 1950s, Sports Illustrated sought to set itself apart from other sports publications in a couple ways. For starters, unlike many sports magazines and newspapers that focus on local athletes, teams and events, SI has an international perspective, covering teams and sporting events from around the world. In addition, the magazine provides more than a report of scores and player trades and other news that are the focus of most daily newspapers, sports websites and cable sports channels such as ESPN … instead, providing at least one long-form, in-depth feature story on a particular athlete or event. The Dan Hodge cover story in the April 1, 1957 issue of Sports Illustrated fits that description.
Dan Hodge: More than a “trophy wrestler”
Some in the wrestling community may only know the name Dan Hodge as gracing the trophy presented each year at this time by WIN magazine and Culture House to the nation’s best collegiate wrestler … without realizing that there is a real guy by that name (still very much alive at age 84) who struck terror in the hearts of high school wrestlers in his native Oklahoma, in college wrestling in the mid-1950s, and at two Olympics (at the 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne Games).
Dan Allen Hodge was born in May 1932 on a farm outside Perry, Oklahoma. He wrestled at Perry High School — one of the all-time great prep programs in the nation — where he won an Oklahoma state title in 1951. Immediately upon graduation, he signed up for the U.S. Navy, where he was able to continue his wrestling career, earning a spot on the 1952 U.S. Olympic men’s freestyle team. Having completed his service to Uncle Sam, Hodge was heavily recruited by Northwestern University … but the Oklahoma native was persuaded to return to his home state by University of Oklahoma head coach and Hall of Fame Distinguished Member Port Robertson. The Sooners were one of the leading college wrestling programs of that era, and still rank fifth in total number of NCAA team titles won (seven), behind Oklahoma State, University of Iowa, Iowa State and Penn State.